Senator Sessions: Lew Nomination At Risk

by Andrew Stiles

A top GOP senator on Thursday indicated that Republicans may attempt to block or delay Jack Lew’s nomination for Treasury Secretary until the Obama administration turns over requested documents, and until President Barack Obama complies with a legal requirement he has ignored since taking office.

In a piece on the homepage today, I explained the GOP opposition to Lew’s nomination. Republicans are particularly interested in Lew’s role in the administration’s continued refusal to comply with federal law regarding the so-called Medicare trigger:

Beginning in 2007, the Medicare trustees’ annual report has included a “funding warning,” essentially a determination that immediate action is necessary to shore up the program’s solvency.

By law, the administration is required to submit legislation to address the trustees’ concerns within 15 days of submitting a budget proposal. President George W. Bush fulfilled this requirement in 2008, although Congress never acted upon his proposal. President Obama has not once bothered to submit such a proposal, which would require significant reforms to the popular entitlement program.

On Tuesday, eight GOP senators sent a letter to the White House requesting documents relating to the Medicare trigger, and Lew’s role, as White House budget director, in failing to comply with the law. If confirmed as Treasury secretary, the senators note in the letter, Lew would also become chairman of the board of the Medicare trustees.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee and one of Lew’s most outspoken critics, sent a follow-up letter to the White House on Thursday, reiterating this request and suggesting that Lew’s nomination could be in jeopardy if the administration refuses to comply.

“In order to properly consider Mr. Lew’s nomination, Congress will need documents pertaining to his role in the violation of this law, as well as a concrete legislative proposal that brings the Administration into legal compliance,” Sessions wrote. “Failure to do so could make it difficult for Mr. Lew’s nomination to move forward.”

In response to the senators’ original letter, Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), indicated that the White House has no intention of providing the requested information or of finally proposing legislation to address the funding warning as required by law. In fact, the administration appears to believe it does not need to obey that particular law.

“The Executive Branch considers the requirement to submit legislation in response to the Medicare funding warning to be advisory and not binding,” Zients wrote.

But the president is clearly committed to ensuring Medicare’s solvency, according to Zients. “The Administration takes very seriously Medicare’s role in protecting seniors and the need to address the program’s long-term financing gap,” Zients wrote. “It is critical that the administration and Congress continue to work together to ensure a sustainable and robust Medicare program.”

Zients echoed the oft-repeated White House argument that passing Obamacare “made considerable progress” toward improving the program’s long-term solvency, a claim that does not hold up to scrutiny.

Sessions dismissed Zients’s reply as “non-responsive.” “The law is unambiguous and yet the Administration has never sent Congress the legally mandated legislative proposal in response to four consecutive Medicare funding warnings,” Sessions wrote. “Not only is a legislative response to the funding warning necessitated by law, it is also required by the perilous financial condition of Medicare.”

Here is the portion of the law in question, from Section 1105 of Title 31 of the U.S. Code:

If there is a Medicare funding warning under section 801(a)(2) of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 made in a year, the President shall submit to Congress, within the 15-day period beginning on the date of the budget submission to Congress under subsection (a) for the succeeding year, proposed legislation to respond to such warning.

The Obama administration, argued Sessions, “remains in a state of noncompliance” with the law, and, as noted earlier, risks jeopardizing Lew’s nomination until the situation is resolved.

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